Oregon Supreme Court says no to Nick Kristof’s governor candidacy

By Lauren Dake (OPB) and Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Feb. 17, 2022 3:36 p.m. Updated: Feb. 17, 2022 7:10 p.m.

The court found that the evidence presented suggested that Kristof had not been an Oregon resident for the required three years.

Nick Kristof at his family farm in Yamhill, Jan. 14, 2022.

Nick Kristof at his family farm in Yamhill, Jan. 14, 2022.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Nick Kristof, the former New York Times columnist who quit his job to run for Oregon governor, is officially out of the race.


In a 33-page opinion issued Thursday morning, the Oregon Supreme Court gave finality to a determination Secretary of State Shemia Fagan made in January: That Kristof cannot legally vie for the governorship, because he does not meet the state’s three-year residency requirement for the job.

“We recognize [Kristof] has longstanding ties to Oregon, that he owns substantial property and operates a farm here, and that the secretary did not question his current Oregon residency,” the opinion reads. “Moreover, he has thought deeply and written extensively about the challenges faced by those living in rural areas of Oregon — and the rest of the country. But that is not the issue here. The issue, instead, is whether [Kristof] has been, during the three years preceding the November 2022 election, ‘a resident within this State.’”

In light of the evidence, the court found, Fagan was within her rights to rule that Kristof was not.

Kristof said the ruling ends his campaign and he will not fight the ruling any further.

“But I want to be clear that I’m not going anywhere,” Kristof said. “I’ve been an Oregonian since I was a kid picking strawberries and raising sheep ... on the family farm. And I’ll be an Oregonian until the day I draw my last breathe and my ashes are scattered on that family farm I love and on the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] here in Oregon.”

Kristof said his future plans remain uncertain, but that he plans to stick around and “keep fighting” for the issues he campaigned on, from addressing the homeless crisis to tackling mental health issues, because the “challenges are great and so many people ... are struggling.”

The decision, anticipated for the past several weeks, will reshape the dynamics of the race to replace Democratic Gov. Kate Brown. In fundraising, Kristof has far outpaced the other two best-known Democratic primary candidates, former House Speaker Tina Kotek and State Treasurer Tobias Read. And he’d pitched himself to voters as the sole true outsider in the race in a year in which poll after poll has shown Oregonians frustrated with the current state of their state.

The justices’ decision also helped answer an unusual but important question: What does it mean, at least for political purposes, to be a resident of Oregon?

In January, Oregon election officials ruled Kristof did not meet residency requirements established in the state’s constitution and therefore could not run to be governor. Oregon election officials ruled that to meet the three-year residency requirement for this year’s gubernatorial race, a person must be a resident in Oregon for the entire three-year period starting in November 2019.

Kristof has said that the term “resident” should be interpreted somewhat loosely. He and his lawyers argued for months that he grew up in Yamhill, still owns and maintains a farm there and has always considered Oregon his home. They added that the historical point of having a residency requirement in the Oregon constitution was to exclude those who were unfamiliar with the state, and that Fagan gave “no weight to forty years of published writings” in which Kristof claimed Yamhill was his home.

Fagan disagreed. In January, she said there was there was a mountain of “objective evidence” showing Kristof considered himself a New York resident until recently. That evidence included Kristof’s decision to vote in New York in 2020. Kristof also had a New York driver’s license that year.

The justices wound up agreeing with Fagan’s reading of the law, finding that her concept of resident was in line with historical interpretations, including a residency requirement for president in the U.S. Constitution.

“In the nineteenth century and in the context of political rights — and election-related rights in particular — ‘residence’ meant ‘domicile,’ the one place where a person has established his or her permanent abode,” the court found.


Next the court looked into whether, given the evidence, Fagan was required to allow Kristof onto the May ballot. Justices found she was not, giving the same credence to driving and voter registration records that Fagan did in her January decision.

On the subjects of Kristof’s decision to maintain his voter registration in New York state until late 2020, the court wrote: “The choice of where to register is a meaningful one, as it provides evidence of the political community to which a person feels the greatest attachment — the community in whose elections that person wishes to have a say.”

It added that Kristof “remained registered to vote in New York and retained a New York driver’s license until late 2020, actions that are at odds with an intent to change his domicile to Oregon a year or more earlier.”

Fagan said the court’s decision affirms the fact-based standard she used, noting that it was not her job to “examine the depth or sincerity of a candidate’s emotional connection to Oregon.”

“This matters because subjectivity in election law has an ugly history, in Oregon and across the country, of preventing people of color, women, immigrants and other historically marginalized people from full participation in our democracy,” Fagan said. “I am delighted that we are moving forward with a clear objective standard for Oregon elections officials to apply.”

Kristof also suggested, in his petition to the court, that the state’s residency requirement might be unconstitutional. Justices declined to weigh in on that question, saying it was not proper for the task at hand.

Kristof has suggested, at times pointedly, that the attempts to force him out of the governor’s race have political motives. At the start of his political campaign, Kristof positioned himself as an outsider and said Fagan — a longtime politician with ties to the Democratic establishment — was basing her decision on “politics, not precedent.”

Fagan also addressed those who might disagree with her decision and the court’s ruling.

“I also want to acknowledge that there are people who are disappointed with the court’s decision today, just like there were many who disagreed with the original decision to disqualify Mr. Kristof,” she said. “That’s OK. Disagreeing, criticizing the decision, challenging the decision in court are all signs of a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, here some people crossed a line. And I am going to speak to that. So let me be clear: This decision was about treating everyone equally under the rules. Baseless attacks that the decision was corrupt, politically motivated, or biased, were wrong.”

Despite being a first-time candidate and a political newcomer with no governing experience, Kristof managed to amass significantly more money than Kotek and Read. He has raised more than $2.5 million in the race and continued raising money while awaiting a ruling on his political fate.

It’s unclear what will happen to the roughly $1.6 million the campaign still has on hand now that Kristof is out of the race. Elections officials declined to offer detailed comment about the possibilities for that money Thursday, saying they would await word on what Kristof proposes. Among his options is transferring the money into a new campaign account. He could also dole out funds to other candidates and causes or refund donors; his list of financial supporters includes well-known names such as Melinda Gates and Angelina Jolie.

Kristof said it was too soon to say whether he plans to endorse another candidate in the Democratic primary.

Kotek, whose path to the Democratic nomination potentially just became easier, offered an olive branch in her response to the court ruling.

“Nick Kristof has long written about pressing issues facing Oregonians and his voice will continue to be important as we tackle Oregon’s biggest issues,” she said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him as a fellow Democrat.”

Kristof’s departure from the race is also good news for Read, who can now position himself the sole moderate alternative to Kotek, at least among Oregon’s best-funded Democrats.

Read sent out a fundraising email Thursday morning squarely aimed at people who might have been backing Kristof: “Nick has deep love for our great state. He and I are more similar than we are different, and I wish him well,” Read wrote. “I welcome his supporters to join our team because we share many of the same priorities: we want leadership that will shake up the status quo.”

Correction: This story has been update to accurately reflect new information from the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office on how quickly Nick Kristof would need to form a new campaign committee.